Monday, October 5, 2009

Dateline: October 2009

Onward Unto Plutonium!
with Dr. Harry Spangler

The Majestic Isotope Plutonium-238

Hello, this is Dr. Harry Spangler, and I'm here from NASA to tell you all a little bit about the ninety-fourth element on the Periodic Table, the unstable transuranic substance Plutonium.

Back in 2004, I was honored to be selected as the spokesman for the glorious 'New Horizons' expedition to the tiny frozen planetoid Pluto. In spite of it's rather limited media profile, 'New Horizons' has been one of the great NASA success stories thus far: We launched in January 2006 without a hitch, and assuming everything continues as planned, we should be reaching that icy orb in December 2015, scarcely a blink of the eye in space time.

In spite of all this, my role as the agency's main Pluto-booster has not kept me nearly as busy as you might imagine. Not that this insignificant span of time has been uneventful, indeed not. Perhaps you recall the media frenzy a couple of years ago when our craft was passing through the Asteroid Belt. And then, of course, last Tuesday we flew past Saturn. Not perilously close, mind you. Saturn was in a totally different part of the Solar System at the time. In fact, we never intended to fly closely - that would have been foolhardy, and NASA prefers to err on the side of caution.

This absence of astronomical drama perhaps explains the lack of interest in procuring my oratorical services during our recent approach to the orbit of the regally ringed planet of Saturn. My lack of spokesman-centric activity may also be seen as at least a contributing factor in The Chief's decision to temporarily assign me additional vital responsibilities between now and November of 2015, at which time I shall proudly return to the role of spokesman for the 'New Horizons' expedition.

Foremost among my new assignments is my role as spokesman for NASA's need for Plutonium-238. Perchance it may strike you as ironic that the spokesman for Pluto is now the spokesman for Plutonium-238, but let me assure you that the irony is entirely intentional. Although I am not a psychologist, The Chief assures me that there is a subliminal wedge to be gained through my association with the dark frozen rock that is Pluto, and I am not of a mind to argue. When dealing with Capitol Hill, there is little doubt that there are quite a few Congressmen willing and able to make the leap from Pluto to Plutonium-238.

The brutal truth is that NASA is rapidly exhausting our supply of Plutonium-238. Back during the Cold War, Plutonium-238 was a happy byproduct of Plutonium-239, which is the important little isotope which put the boom in our bombs. Well, the Cold War is just a memory now, and our enrichment labs have long been silent. For a number of years, we were able to purchase all of the Plutonium-238 we needed from the Soviet Union, but as many of you know, the Cold War ended there too, and as might sadly be predicted, our treasured stash of Plutonium-238 has now dwindled down to seeds and stems.

I know that for most people, a visit from a NASA official would be quite the memorable occasion, but within the rarified atmosphere of the Beltway, many publicly elected officials can actually become quite jaded. What we request for accomplishing our simple task of resuming production of Plutonium-238 is a mere trifle of pork that would not even be missed from the bureaucratic budget banquet, and yet my pleas for aid are often met with scorn.

"What's this, then?" one saucy Freshmen Representative from Illinois asked me recently. "150 million for Plutonium-238? To speak honestly, Dr Spangler, the citizens of my district would not be pleased to see their hard earned tax dollars being used to fill NASA's coffers with Plutonium-238. It's simply laughable. Why not just use Plutonium-239? We've got plenty of that."

You can see my problem. Rep. Debbie Halvorson of Illinois' 11th District was technically correct - it was laughable. The very idea of using Plutonium-239 to help power a NASA mission is so absurd that one wonders whether or not this 'freshman' congressman had flunked nuclear physics in grade school. To put it quite simply, Plutonium-238 has a half-life of 88 years and emits alpha particles, whereas Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years and can blow your ass to hell. One can be quite certain that NASA funding would dry up completely if we began touching down our miraculous crafts on strange new worlds, only to blast them to smithereens.

It should be semi-fascinating work, educating America's leaders to the dire need for Plutonium-238, and The Chief assures me that I will thoroughly enjoy it. And when my work is done, in seventy-three months or so, I shall gladly returned to my true love, the frozen mystery that is the ninth stone from the Sun.


  1. A delightful and intoxicating, maybe addicting, conglomeration of 21st century prose. Mr. Carroll smiles somewhere, perhaps in the rings of Pluto.